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Himalaya girl power: Treks 'by women, for women'
After striking out in the male-dominated trekking business, three sisters strike out on their own to lead women-only treks
When sisters Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Chhetri began guiding trekkers through Nepal’s challenging mountain routes in 1994, disbelief came from many angles.
“At first, people thought we were doing sex tourism, not trekking -- going into the mountains with foreigners for weeks,” says Lucky.
Surrounded by skeptics in an industry dominated by men -- of 452 Nepalis who summited one of the country’s peaks in 2011 only three were female -- the three sisters, now all in their mid-forties, have established not only a successful company of female guides and porters, but a pathway for girls from Nepal’s most remote and rugged areas toward employment and empowerment.
The first company to employ female guides in Nepal, 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking now employs around 25 women as guides and 40 as assistant guides and porters.
After leaving their hometown of Darjeeling for Pokhara, a lakeside tourist hub at the foot of the Annapurna mountain range, the sisters opened a restaurant and guesthouse in 1993.
A year or so later, stories of female trekkers feeling uncomfortable with their male guides and porters in the mountains led them to post a sign advertising treks “by women, for women."
In the first season, Lucky guided trekkers to Annapurna Base Camp, at 4,130 meters. Her training: a basic course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling.
'We are investing in our girls'
Mountain guiding in Nepal is big business, with at least a quarter of all tourists who visit Nepal engaging in some form of trekking.
With each season, the three sisters’ business grew quickly, with more trekkers opting for female guides.
While guiding groups through the mountains, the sisters noticed the harsh conditions faced by young girls living in the remote areas, including some who had been sold by their families to work in trekking lodges.
“We knew the women living in the remote mountain areas had an emotional, physical and economic hard life," says Lucky. "The girls have to walk miles for water, climb trees for firewood, work in fields. Hardly any opportunity, hardly any ambition."
She remembers thinking, “If I can [be a guide], the women in the mountains who do so much physical work, they all can do it too.”
The Chhetri sisters’ successful company is only one half of their work.
Two years after starting the company, they established Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN), a non-profit organization that provides training for girls over the age of 16 to become mountain guides.
During the six-month training periods, girls from around Nepal come to EWN to learn practical mountain skills, including rock climbing, guiding, cartography and first aid, as well as women’s health, leadership, English and flora and fauna of the Himalayas, in both a classroom and field setting.
“When the girls come at the beginning, they are shy and cover their faces, but later their body language is straight, they laugh and share their experiences of guiding,” says Lucky.
“We are investing in our girls as a human resource.”
The training is free.
Many girls continue on working for 3 Sisters, first as porters, then assistant guides, then as full guides capable of leading trekking groups throughout Nepal’s many mountain routes.
Mana Kunwar has been working at 3 Sisters for 11 years, first as a porter and now as a full guide, as well as assistant office manager.
“In the beginning, some people were surprised when they saw me,” she says. "They thought I was a foreigner and asked if I needed a hotel room.”
Kunwar notices huge changes in the remote mountain communities she visits while leading trekking groups. Some lodges now provide female-only rooms -- previously, female workers had to share rooms with male porters.
Young girls in remote villages sometimes approach and ask her how to become a guide.
The sisters established a children’s home in 2006 that provides accommodation, food, clothing and educational opportunities for girls who are orphaned, forced into child labor or come from disadvantaged households.
“We are creating a platform for girls to realize what they can do with their lives,” says Lucky. “I don’t want them to be 50 years old and ask ‘Is this possible?’”
In India: Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company
West along the Himalayas, in India’s northernmost region of Ladakh, Thinlas Choral also faced opposition when she started guiding trekking groups through the mountains.
After male-only trekking companies rejected her inquiries about becoming a guide, she founded the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company in 2009.
The company employs exclusively female guides throughout Ladakh’s trekking routes, including (this year) the challenging wintertime Chadar trek on the frozen Zanskar River.
Rather than staying in teahouse-guesthouses that line trails across Nepal, her business promotes home stays to bring income to remote villages in Ladakh.
3 Sisters Adventure Trekking; Pokhara-6, Lakeside (Khahare), Nepal; +977 61 462066
Ladakhi Women's Travel Company; Shop 22, Hemis Complex, Upper Tukcha Road, Zangsti, Leh, Ladakh, India